clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Zimmer's Motivational Strategy

New, comments

We've seen two sides to Zimmer's motivational strategy for his players, and we've seen two different results. Can he find and strike the balance necessary to make this season more like the Lions game and less like the 49ers game?

But for real, y'all. Zim said he'd cut us like fishes if we didn't play better. He showed us the knife!
But for real, y'all. Zim said he'd cut us like fishes if we didn't play better. He showed us the knife!
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Last Monday, the Minnesota Vikings played the San Francisco 49ers in a game that many- Vegas included- expected the Vikings to come out of with a win. Yes, it was an away game in a rather rough setting (late game with large time difference, temperature conditions Vikings players were less used to practicing in, the dreaded MNF curse), but most analysts, pundits, and fans felt that the Vikings were simply too superior a team to lose to the collapsing 49ers.

We all know what happened after that. Well, most of us do. I personally slammed my head into a metal beer trough and therefore am a bit fuzzy as to the specifics of the 4th quarter, but I feel like I know the important thing- the Vikings did NOT get that win. Nor were they even close, or, after a beautifully blocked field goal and excellent return, even really competitive. The game ended 20-3 and wasn't that close- if the 49ers hadn't repeatedly shot themselves in the proverbial foot with penalties, it would have been a horrific blowout.

After the game, Mike Zimmer spoke with disgust and barely controlled rage against his team. There were elements of disbelief there, too- particularly his repeated assertion that the Wednesday prior to the game, his team had exceeded his expectations in terms of preparation and assured in him a strong sense of confidence. When inquired as to what the private message for the team would be, he repeated a line used last season as well- that it wasn't suitable for print, or really the decent public at large.

When Zimmer was hired as our head coach, his pedigree was as a top notch defensive coordinator- but his reputation was also as a master of motivation. He was known as a man to take 'trouble children' and whip them into shape, resurrecting talented careers nearly destroyed by stupidity. He encouraged lesser talent to work the extra step necessary to compete with those more athletic or otherwise more naturally skilled. And he united his defenses into coherent units, a single force rather than a collection of players. And above all, it was always said that he was beloved by his players- and far more importantly, respected.

This was always the key difference between Zimmer and his failed predecessor. Leslie Frazier was- for the most part- also beloved by his players. Adrian Peterson, as one example, was livid at his firing. Several others spoke out about their admiration of him as well. But later, the cracks began to emerge- particularly from the soon departed Kevin Williams, who spoke on the erosion of faith and trust in a man whom he still insisted he loved- but as a person, not as a coach.

Anyone who has ever been in a position of authority, or at least learned about holding positions of authority, will repeat the old cliché- it is being respected that is important, not whether you are liked. While the two are not mutually exclusive, Frazier seemed to be the leader who favored his players liking him rather than demanding, and reinforcing, their respect. Zimmer, on the other hand, demands respect- and doesn't really give a damn whether you like him or not.

But then again, rare is a player who actually speaks out against Zimmer- as a coach or a man. The closest we came was Chris Cook, who's only interaction with Zimmer anyways was pretty much a pink slip. Players speak of admiring, trusting, and yes- whether he cares or not- liking him. Zimmer likely does genuinely care about the men under his tutelage; he comes off as a hardass, but not an outright asshole. And there is the key difference between Zimmer and the coach his predecessor replaced- the repugnant Brad Childress.

You could use the word 'hardass' with Childress, but for all his discipline, firm hand, and 'belief in character', he never actually inspired the respect that word at times infers. Players outright despised him. Some, like Brett Favre, openly revolted against him. Zimmer will stand on stage and personally call out an injured player whom he feels isn't taking his rehab serious enough, and get the best year of their career out of them for it. Childress, on the other hand, cut a player for skipping a practice to see his dying grandmother- during Christmas time, no less.

You could argue both are jerk moves, yet the results are strikingly different. Now granted, Zimmer never actually has done anything as jerk-ish as Chilly's pink slip for visiting a dying relative during the holidays, but he's definitely had his harsh moments. He himself admitted that he learned he needed to ease up on Xavier Rhodes in order to get the best out of him (and the results have been excellent). Whereas Childress was hard almost for the sake of being hard, like a man who's ego is constantly being challenged, Zimmer is self-aware enough to know when, where, and how to strike a balance.

Clearly, as Di pointed out (correctly in my opinion), his motivational tactics leading up to the 49ers game were somehow lacking. The team appeared disoriented, unprepared, and at times lacking the will to fight. I agreed with her assessment that he should take at least partial responsibility for the showing of his charges on the football field, yet he stood on the podium and squarely pointed the finger at them. The thing is, we don't know what level of responsibility he personally took- he strikes me as a guy who will bear the brunt of blame when things go wrong around him, so I'm actually willing to bet he was quietly harboring the most anger towards himself. But whereas he appeared- at least from his own latter comments- to have been as ‘giddy' as one might ever dare use the word with him leading up to the 49ers game, he came off as savage and nearly vengeful at a point afterwards. And if we are to take him at his word, he kept that tone leading up likely right to before the Detroit game.

The game, you know, where the Vikings dominated the Lions- presumed by many the superior team to the same 49ers who curbstomped us prior- and never gave them a chance.

Zimmer's postgame elations showed that his team had erased any residual anger over their previous showing. Most likely they are enjoying this week far more than last. Zimmer has previously rewarded his team for strong efforts and results- the rare occasional practice off, music at practices (the heathen!), and such. Of course, his attitude is most likely the best reward he can grant his players. A happy Zimmer seems like a great time to be around. An angry Zimmer seems like your worst nightmare.

While he hit a hitch early on this season, it would appear that Zimmer's reputation as a master motivator remains intact. We saw some of it last season, but much like the Frazier era- where players would have run through a wall for him at times- it didn't often produce the necessary results. Sunday it produced a result we haven't seen in a while, with maybe two exceptions last season (the Rams and the Falcons).

There's no doubt this team is talented. Many picked them as a playoff hopeful for a reason. While we're far from a perfect team- there are still question marks across the board, our quarterback is still barely into his second year (and has yet to notch a full 16 games under his belt), our freshly extended kicker can't go a game without missing something- there's a lot there that, if motivated properly, can challenge good to great teams week in and week out.

It might be a bit overboard to call this a ‘make or break' year for Zimmer. A second year coach, running a young team, certainly should not have that pressure on him just yet. That said, it will speak- in my humble opinion- a great deal about the heights he will be capable of leading this team to if he is able to maintain the motivation he imparted on his team against Detroit for the entire season. And if he can't, it may speak to something else.

Zimmer just needs, maybe, to finalize the same lesson he learned with Rhodes- striking that perfect balance between snarling orders and insults, and giving praise and reassurance. Great leaders have one quality equally across the board, and that's the ability to inspire and motivate ordinary men to do extraordinary things. It would appear that Zimmer has that quality, but the question of the year is this: can he maintain the balance necessary for 14 more games?